Should Australians learn another language?

Ingrid Piller in conversation with Steve Price on 2GB Radio

Last weekend the Australian government released its white paper Australia in the Asian Century. One of its recommendations is that “All Australian students will have the opportunity, and be encouraged, to undertake a continuous course of study in an Asian language throughout their years of schooling.”

Meanwhile, the Australian public continues to be largely unconvinced that language learning for everyone is a good idea – many remain skeptical of the feasibility or even the desirability of universal language learning. Talk-back radio is one of the media were this skepticism finds a particularly strong voice. Sydney’s 2GB devoted much of Monday evening to questions of language learning: is it feasible for all Australian kids to learn a language other than English? If so, which language should it be? Is there any point in learning another language seeing that everyone else wants to learn English? Does foreign language learning detract from English language learning?

Ingrid Piller joined the debate on the Steve Price show and you can listen to her passionate argument for taking languages seriously by clicking on the ‘play’ button above: as the rest of the world is becoming bi- and multilingual, Australian kids are missing out until we get serious about improving language education in this country.

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  • It seems to me that many people think that teaching children Chinese or Japanese 2 hours a week will make them bilingual and able to use their second language professionally. I think that is a big illusion. Learning Chinese or Japanese takes an enormous amount of time. Schools might be able to have a bilingual program in which they teach some subjects in another language, but I doubt that is the government’s plan. I suspect they intend to make the foreign language classes only a small part of the curriculum and that will not provide bilingual professionals. I think it is very unrealistic considering the short period of time that will be spent on the second language. It will not be possible to get the majority of children spend enough time on their language study. Some exceptions will probably do well, but the majority will learn very little. I am not saying that children should not learn a foreign language, but using Chinese or Japanese is not realistic as it is much too time consuming, much better to teach a language like Esperanto unless you are really committed to having nearly half the classes in a foreign language.

  • I wonder whether we might see a class action taken by people in the future for being deprived of the opportunity to seriously learn a second language.

    What would happen if students were only taught to count to 100 for math or half the periodic table for science?

  • Elizabeth, your comment about a class action makes me think of an article written by Claude Piron a few years ago called “2052 after the language revolution”. He speaks about a court case where people are blamed for their scandalous indifference concerning language problems. The article is here http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/languagerevolution.htm (in English)
    http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenallemand/sprachenrevolution.htm (in German)
    http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenfrancais/futur.htm (in French- the original)
    On the same page you can find it in 3 more languages: Dutch, Portuguese and Esperanto

  • There is a character limit so this is terse, sorry!
    It is feasible for all Australian kids to learn at least one language other than English.
    The first foreign language should be Esperanto, because it is equally new to everyone, provides access to the widest range of other cultures, is able to be mastered in 100 hours, and increases the motivation and aptitude for later language learning.
    It is easy enough that class teachers can teach it, as class teachers teach primary maths, though specialists later handle calculus. This is how we make best use of the limited supply of calculus teachers.
    When class teachers teach a first foreign language (an apprenticeship language) they also start to erode the monolingual mindset which expects a second language only in immigrants and specialists.
    Is there any point in learning another language seeing that everyone else wants to learn English? Certainly:
    1. For our self-respect.
    2. To show respect to other world citizens.
    3. For our brain development, function and resilience.
    4. Because everyone cannot learn English, even if they want to (Time/money etc) and Global Issues deserve Global Discussion.
    Foreign language learning does not detract from English language learning. Research is quite conclusive that a second language helps deep understanding of English. Esperanto especially because of its ‘transparent grammar’, clear phonetic nature and extensive use of Latin and Germanic roots.
    Contact me through my website if you are interested!

  • Heleanor Feltham

    Learning another language is a key to understanding how our own works, it is a mental stimulant, a way of engaging with a different culture, and a revelation of the beauty and complexity of thought and meaning. The aim is not to become a professional linguist, but to put in the groundwork for further learning if desired, or for simple awareness of the richness of language and thought. Being monolingual is a disadvantage that narrows our choices and limits our thinking in ways that put us far behind most of the world.

  • A great discussion, Ingrid! The multilingual mindset is so important not only to be competitive in the globalising job market, but also to create a sense of community in everyday life in culturally and linguistically diverse Australia. Sometimes, even a little proficiency in other languages makes a whole lot of difference. One example that immediately comes to me is an ex-colleague of mine at Macquarie University.

    When I was a postdoc at a research centre some years ago, there was an Australian PhD student working as a RA. He would stick his head in and say “Sayonara, matane! (Bye, see you!)” on his way out. He learned some basic Japanese at school and while he cannot be considered as proficient, I was always amazed at ease with which he used Japanese. It was simply effortless. Born in Africa to parents of South Asian background, he moved to Australia at very young age and is multilingual in English, his home language and some European languages. Saying a few foreign words here and there isn’t a ‘big deal’ for him. It’s his transnational mindset and multilingual attitude that make his use of other learned languages effortless. Every time he walked past my office, I was in treat for a special moment of acceptance. His utterance lasted only a few seconds each time, but my respect for him will last a lifetime.

    As Hanna Torsh points out here, Australia’s Asia literacy debate seems targeted at Australians who do not have his kind of life trajectory. As Ingrid highlights in her interview, there are many good model Australians for others to learn from.

  • Janica Nordstrom

    Interesting! I’m doing my PhD at Sydney Uni at the moment (about online education in community language schools) and I’m a RA for a large study which is mapping language resources in schools.

    I frequently come across claims that the Australian population generally are anti language learning at schools, but I am struggling to find any studies which backs this up. On the contrary, data for the language mapping study I’m the RA at, indicates the very opposite – that staff at schools actually hold very positive attitudes towards language learning in schools. There were only very few who didn’t think students should study another language. It’s a contradiction I’m struggling to understand, so if you have any references for previous studies of Australians attitudes towards language learning then I would be very grateful.

    And thank you for an interesting conference day the other week!

    • Hi Janica, that’s an interesting question! My personal experience has been the same – pretty much everyone I talk to thinks bilingualism is great. Indeed, even policy is in favour of language learning, as the white paper clearly demonstrates and also the statements of politicians from both major parties in recent months. However, these sentiments obviously fly in the face of (a) a lot of media discussions (talk back radio; opinion papges; comments on relevant websites) and (b), more crucially, the obvious reality that language learning in Australian schools is, by and large, a failure (well-documented and I’m sure you have the relevant reading list, too).
      The way I make sense of this contradiction has to do with the fact that attitude surveys are a blunt instrument. You could compare attitudes towards language learning to attitudes towards climate change: if you ask people whether they think we should do more to prevent catastrophic climate change, an overwhelming majority would say ‘yes’ and would express positive attitudes towards reducing greenhouses gases etc. However, when it comes to the actual implementation of any changes, individuals don’t walk the walk and continue to drive, use their aircons, choose the cheapest energy provider instead of the one that uses renewable sources etc. etc. Furthermore, social change can’t just happen with individuals making consumer choices: even if highly committed to reducing their ecological footprint, many Sydneysiders simply can’t give up their cars because there is no decent public transport in their area. It’s the same with language learning: many people would like their children to learn languages but in the absence of a serious funding committment, well-trained teachers, a sufficient curriculum allocation etc. only a tiny minority will go to the length of seeking out special bilingual education programs etc.
      One of my PhD students, Victoria Benz, is struggling with similar issues and I’ve recommend the literatures in social psychology about the value-action gap to her. On a practical level, I think we have a lot to learn from activism for social change.

      • Ingrid,
        I watched this interview awhile ago and enjoyed it 🙂 Late to the comment stream, but I’ll comment anyway: I completely agree that there’s a huge gap between rhetoric about multilingualism, at least in the U.S., and actual practice. So many people talk the multilingual talk, meaning they talk about how great they think it is, but very few actually walk that walk and live that multilingualism. Few work to create the social practices/contexts/spaces that would allow more people, including MT speakers of English in Australia, U.S., to actually regularly use and practice multilingualism. I’m not sure how we actually get to where people talking the talk but not walking the walk start to walk the multilingual walk in meaningful way. That’s the $20 million dollar question: How are people moved to action and change. One way is sheer instrumentalism — you need this other language or you won’t get a job/can’t function. But if that’s the only way — and I’m not saying it is — we won’t get very far with inspiring English MT/English monolinguals to actually walk the multilingual talk.Why? Because the “instrumental” argument will only prove true for a tiny percentage of these people — barring wide scale, far-reaching social change, that is…

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  • khan

    Very interesting discussion. My literature search in bilingual/multilingual education across the globe make me concur with Professor’s Ingrid observation about the contradiction between the claimed language policy on mulitlingualism and the implemented policy. I also find that our colleagues have spent too much time on analysing the policy documents, archival sources, modelling bilingual programmes on papers! rather than actually grappling with the implemented models. Lo Bianco (2008) reports on the complexity of implmented models in four concrete settings. They suggest how differently the models are interpreted and implemented in historicised settings.
    Lo Bianco, J (2008) Bilingual education and socio-political issues . In J. Cummins and N. H. Hornberger (eds), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2nd Edition, Volume 5: Bilingual Education, New York: Springer 35–50.

  • esson

    I grew up in a country where there’s one official (and very unique) language spoken. Learning a foreign language had always been a priority (and a necessity today). This was still during the cold-war years, so English had largely replaced French as the lingua franca in science, technology and international relations. This is why I learned English. In the early 20’s for example I would have learned French.

    Besides the obvious practicality, there’s also the (personal) gain of getting to know another culture in depth, being able to experience a different way of life, or writing long comments in a foreign forum

    Is English still the lingua franca for everything? Is the English-speaking world a reasonably good place to live and work ? I suppose it still is and I doubt this will change for as long as the U.S. remains the Roman Empire of our times. A native English speaker does not need a second language for practical reasons.

    For personal improvement however, if you want to study, or work/live in a foreign country, go deeper into a foreign culture, then yes it will make you a better person. So find a culture that you would like to know better, or a country that you would like to study/work/live in and learn the language. If you don’t feel like it, you’re still fine with English.

    After all, with local cultures constantly under attack by..multiculturalism (which is essentially, a uniculturalism) , I doubt that there will be anything to discover in a few decades from now)

  • Laura

    HOLA!!! For those who would like your kids to expand their horizon… I am opening my own SPANISH school in the gold coast.
    Our program includes a special comprehensive program for ages 6 to 16. It is based on Accelerated Learning Techniques that encompass Whole Brain Learning, Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles – visual (sight), auditory (hearing), and kinesthetic (movement/touch). The program focuses primarily on the acquisition of vocabulary and practical conversation skills, using different tools to create variety in the class experience. Additionally, it is designed to stimulate different learning styles through the creative use of posters, colorful associations, magnetic pictures, color-coded word cards, songs, games, acting skits, sign language, books, activity workbooks and multimedia. This multi-sensory, fun-filled approach allows students to learn fast and with a high level of retention.

    I am also hosting a free community spanish workshop for kids on the 24th of August from 10-11am at the Southport Community Centre and we would like to invite you to participate.We are aiming to promote the learning of a 2nd language at an early age with Spanish, as it is the 2nd most spoken language in the world, underneath Chinese Mandarin, and also the easiest language for native English speakers to learn as much of its vocabulary is similar to English, and written Spanish is almost completely phonetic.

    hasta pronto
    [email protected]